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Blunt Rochester hosts roundtable on nurse shortage

Beebe Healthcare
Beebe Healthcare

A roundtable held by Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester Thursday focused on Delaware’s nurse shortage.

Healthcare professionals and lawmakers discussed responses to the problem, particularly in fast-growing and fast-aging Sussex County.

Nurses describe a workforce stretched thin, facing increasingly difficult patients and often pushed to leave the field or self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to cope with stress.

Delaware Nurses Association President-Elect Stephanie McClellan says a growing number of nurses are taking more lucrative jobs as travel nurses, who can make thousands more dollars per year. Because travel nursing agencies consider any distance over 52 miles ‘travel,’ the switch is especially appealing to Delaware nurses.

“Where we live in a small state, you can travel to Maryland, you can travel from north to south, south to north and be within that mileage range," she said. "Depending on where you live, you can even go to Virginia and still get those benefits and go home at night.”

But McClellan and other nurses note the shift to travel nursing leads to a shortage of experienced nurses at Delaware hospitals, placing additional strain on nurses earning far less.

Recent nursing school graduate Breona Mailey says she’s working alongside more travel nurses and fewer long-term colleagues, leaving fewer experienced team members to turn to for help.

“At times, there are so many [travel nurses]," she said. "You’re not sure who you can go to with a question. You have your mentor, the seasoned nurses, but it’s really just the numbers.”

The roundtable discussed offering state and federal incentives for nurses to stay at one hospital, along with tax incentives for experienced nurses who train new hires and opportunities for DACA students to receive debt forgiveness for the cost of nursing school — a step, panelists said, towards addressing the critical lack of bilingual healthcare staff.

Beebe CEO Dr. David Tam pointed out that reducing strain on nurses may also require addressing shortages of other hospital staffers. "We don’t have enough housekeepers, because it’s really hard for a housekeeper to live near Lewes," he said. "So what happens? There are nurses in our emergency room who are helping with cleaning.”

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.